The president tries to coax GOP colleagues to set aside their worries about Social Security.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
WASHINGTON -- The president invited a small group of Republican congress members to his living room on the second floor of the White House -- not the formal offices he usually presides over -- to talk about Social Security.
While his guests sipped soda and ate peanuts, he did something even more remarkable.
He listened to them. He took criticism from them. For the better part of an hour, President Bush -- who has been accused of taking a "my way or the highway" approach to Congress -- was all ears.
"He didn't cut anybody off," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-N.Y. "He didn't try to debate us. Sometimes he's more argumentative."
That at-home meeting in March was one of dozens that Bush has held over the last three months to coax Republicans to set aside their qualms about his drive to overhaul Social Security. The lobbying effort -- less visible than his high-profile 60-day campaign to promote his Social Security plan around the country -- has had Bush more personally and deeply engaged with lawmakers than at any other time in his presidency.
That effort has brought more than 160 House and Senate Republicans to the White House in small groups, given many lawmakers face time with Bush aboard Air Force One and brought dozens to events where Bush has addressed their constituents on Social Security.
Still a tough task
The lobbying drive has apparently produced few results in terms of changing minds and bumping up the congressional vote count, but the White House says it never intended this stage of the campaign to be an arm-twisting enterprise.
Still, the fact that Bush has had to mount such a full-court press even within his own party is a measure of just how difficult a political task he faces -- and how much the dynamic between the White House and Congress has changed in his second term.
Though some Republicans in Congress have complained that Bush took them for granted in his first term, or ignored them unless they were rebelling against the party line, they can hardly make that charge now.
"He's out there and making sure he's talking to all of us -- a lot -- and not just when ... we're in the doghouse," said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Ohio.
At issue is Bush's ambitious effort to restructure Social Security. He wants to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into individual investment accounts. In return, workers would probably be required to give up a portion of their traditional Social Security benefit.
Although the investment accounts were initially his principal focus, Bush has conceded that they alone would not solve the problem facing Social Security: Without changes, it will become insolvent after baby boomers retire.
Resistance to plan
But Democrats are implacably opposed to the accounts funded by payroll taxes, and many Republicans fear tackling the politically sensitive issue without bipartisan support. As a result, Bush has had to get personally involved in the initiative to a degree unmatched in his first term, when he pushed issues that already enjoyed broad support within his party, such as tax cuts and expanding Medicare.
"It is a reflection of the difficulty the president is having in terms of convincing the American public and Congress," said a senior Senate Republican aide.
Throughout his first term, Bush's contact with members of Congress was more selective. The lawmakers he brought to the White House tended to be congressional leaders and senior power brokers, or recalcitrant Republicans who needed to be pressured to toe the party line. He never had the close relationships with members of Congress that his father, a former House member, enjoyed as president.
White House pressure on Republicans to support the 2001 tax cut was so intense that the Capitol chamber where Vice President Dick Cheney met to lobby senators came to be known as the "torture chamber."
In a 2001 budget meeting still fresh in congressional memories, Bush antagonized a bipartisan group of senior members who were seeking additional funding for homeland security. Bush bluntly threatened a veto and, rather than respond to lawmakers' arguments, abruptly left the meeting.
"I was flabbergasted and amazed," said Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis. "We expected it was going to be a working meeting instead of a 'my way or the highway' meeting."
Republicans again saw an adamant, table-pounding Bush when he tried to persuade lawmakers in 2003 to support full funding for rebuilding Iraq. "I'm not here to debate you," Bush said at one meeting, interrupting one senator.
Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, disputed the view that Bush was unresponsive or imperious toward Congress in his first term. He said the fact that Bush never vetoed a bill was evidence that he was listening to Congress. But Duffy acknowledged that the president's personal outreach to Republicans on Social Security was, for Bush, unprecedented in its scope.
"It is a blanket effort," Duffy said. "It's a clear reflection of the president's commitment to getting things done. It shows how much the president understands that this is a difficult challenge."
According to Duffy, 132 House Republicans -- more than half the party's caucus -- and 33 Senate Republicans have come to the White House for small group meetings with Bush on Social Security. Bush typically meets with them in the Cabinet Room or in the more informal setting of his residential quarters. And as Bush traveled the country as part of his 60-day campaign, more often than not he invited members of Congress to fly with him on Air Force One.
Few Democrats have gotten such attention. Two exceptions have been Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who were invited to meet with Bush one on one.
Republicans who have been lobbied by Bush say he is uncommonly engaged in the issue and more passionate than they have seen him since he was pushing his signature education initiative in 2001.
"You could see him sitting on the edge of his chair," said Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La.
Bush typically focuses his pitch on detailing the long-term strain on Social Security's resources and argues that it should be addressed sooner rather than later.
Open to others' input
And unlike most of his first-term initiatives such as tax cuts and the war in Iraq, on which Bush had a clear idea of where his policies were headed, lawmakers say he is pointedly open to their suggestions about how to handle Social Security as a policy and political matter.
"I'm not committed to any single fix," he told one group.
After making his own case for the need to overhaul Social Security at the sessions, Bush typically goes around the table or room to hear from each person.
"It wasn't just a pitch: 'This is what I want; Go do it,' " said Rep. Michael Ferguson, R-N.J. "He wanted to make sure he heard from everyone."